Welcome back! Buddhism teaches us to lose attachments, to live a simple and uncluttered life. Looking around the space around this computer, however, I see much clutter, covered by a layer of dust. It's not for lack of effort cleaning, and it's less clutter than, say, a year ago, so let's chat a moment on the role of this clutter, this dust, in my practice. First, this woman wants to share what her mother's house looked like a couple of years after she moved away.
Let's clear some things up after the fold...
The subject of clutter has been coming up a lot lately, and since I'm personally in a war against my clutter, trying to move beyond a yearlong stalemate and make some progress, I figured it was a worthwhile topic to discuss.
One thing that I find frustrating about most discussions of clutter is how they often assume that fixing clutter is always a matter of knowing more organization tricks, or just putting some elbow grease into cleaning and organizing a room. For me, at least, I have, with full knowledge of the importance and techniques of organization, taken a perfectly tidy and organized apartment, and merely a suitcase of belongings, and over the course of two weeks of just plain living my life, I made the place look like a tornado hit it.
Clearly there's something deeper going on with clutter than just a need to learn how to tidy a space and then doing it (though those are indeed two important steps).
Before we really begin, I'd like to make my standard disclaimer. I'm a Zen practitioner, not a Zen Master, all I offer here is my own viewpoint, as colored by my current understanding of Buddhism, of Dharma. These Dharma Chats are not expressions of attained enlightenment, they are an attempt to start a meaningful conversation between fellow travelers, an attempt to offer some insight to interested onlookers.
There lived a family in a farm house. They were enjoying the fresh cool breeze coming through the open doors and windows. The weather suddenly changed, and a terrible dust storm set in. Realizing it was a bad storm, they got up to close the doors and windows. By the time they could close all the doors and windows, much dust had entered the house. After closing all of the doors and windows, they started cleaning away the dust that had come into the house.
— Traditional Jainist Parable
Dharma Chat — Modeling Clutter
On the surface the origin of clutter seems pretty straightforward. We have a space, let's say an apartment, it has living area and a finite number of places where things can belong. During the course of life, objects enter the living area (groceries, books, clothing, what have you), and leave it too (eg. to be put where they belong, or thrown out, or whatever).
If the rate which objects enter is faster than the rate which objects leave, clutter forms. Inevitably, as the place gets more cluttered, we start bringing things in slower, or bringing things out faster, so eventually the clutter reaches an equilibrium. For some the equilibrium point is pretty tidy, for others it's when it starts to draw the attention of fire marshals or health inspectors. For me right now, it's somewhere in between.
Sometimes there are disturbances to the equilibrium, the space is cleaner or dirtier than usual. Perhaps there was a party, or someone was ill, or the kid is home from college, or a guest was expected and some mess needed to be cleaned before the visitor arrived house. In any case, before too long, we generally find the clutter level returning to pretty much where it was before. Equilibrium.
Buddhism teaches that it is skillful to live simply; Zen Buddhism in particular places great value on tidiness, and frowns upon clutter. Personally, I intend to live a less cluttered life in a less cluttered home, because I find my clutter causes me difficulty, suffering, on a number of levels.
However, being Buddhist doesn't magically make my life simple, nor my home tidy. I've repeatedly put massive effort into cleaning my space, only to watch all my good intentions be washed away by the inexorable tides of equilibrium.
I've realized the storm is coming in through the windows, and I've started to close them.
Dharma Chat — Home Practice
So, I see my problem as me being discontent with where my equilibrium point currently is. First, I need to accept that it is where it is. Then I need to decide whether to act to change this balance point, or leave it be. I have decided to act to change this balance point, so the next question is what do I intend to do about it.
Obviously, stuff doesn't enter and leave the space on its own, our actions, our karma, moves things around, and results in the consequences of that equilibrium. By far the vast majority of our actions are habits and practices, and sure enough I find that our habits of how we shop, how we handle our dishes, how we handle our mail, how we handle our laundry, how we handle our trash, how we interact with our friends and family, how we do myriad things that alter what stuff is where, these habits create the equilibrium we observe.
Change our habits, and the equilibrium changes, it's that simple, and that difficult.
In my case, these habits have been colored and shaped by, among other things, decades of coping with mental health issues. They're really not the most skillful habits in the world, but I suppose they could be much worse. As I get the time, energy and motivation, I try to identify a habit that's long outlived its usefulness, that's now doing more harm than good, and see what I can do to adjust it, or replace it with a different, more effective one.
For example, I used to shop based primarily on interest, I'd browse the aisles looking for what caught my eye. I wonder how this sauce would taste ... this book sounds fascinating ... this tool would be useful ... that necklace looks so cool... If it sparked my interest, and there was no big obstacle to getting it, I would. Back when I was making more money, there was seldom a big obstacle to getting it, and I have amassed a great deal of stuff, and most of it is stuff I still think is cool.
So, a few years ago, as I began to really address my clutter issues, that was the first habit I decided consciously to work on. When I see something interesting, I try to first take a moment to admire it as it is; among other things, it is an object that isn't mine and probably will never be mine. I enjoy learning what interesting things are in the world, and where to find them if needed, but I had to take a step back from knowing where to find them because they were in my home.
Then, if the thought arises "I should get this", I try to ask myself some pointy questions, like whether I have a place to put it; can I afford the money, time and energy to maintain it; what waste will result from this and what do I intend to do about it? As I remember to ask those questions, when I don't like the answers, I don't get the thing. That one change, mindfully slowing the rate of stuff coming in, has made a huge difference, and didn't require me to buy a single thing, or clean any more (or less) than I was already doing before. It wasn't easy though, it took mindfulness and practice, lots of practice.
I usually find it pointless to sweep the floor while the dust storm is still coming in the window.
Dharma Chat — Hacking Our Habits
You might notice here that I added a habit onto an already existing one. I find it almost always fruitless to consciously try to lose a habit; easier, but still quite hard, to replace a habit with a different one (eg. ex-smokers who try to chew gum instead); far far easier to nudge and adjust an existing habit into a slightly more fruitful direction, or to develop and cultivate a new good habit that could use more practice, more expression. As I actively cultivate and practice skillful habits, there's less room for unskillful habits to express themselves.
You might also notice I've been careful using "should" or "ought" here. When I use these words, I often find myself using them to create a moral attachment to some outcome, for example: clutter hurts me -> clutter bad -> I should get rid of clutter. Then if, for whatever reason, I do not get rid of clutter, I find I treat myself as a moral failure, beating myself up for it, creating needless suffering on top of the harm I'm causing myself with the clutter, on top of the suffering associated with whatever derailed my intention.
I find this unhealthy, and Buddhism suggests to look at things differently: I see that I am here, I intend to go in this direction, I act in order to go in this direction, I respond to the consequences of my actions (whether the consequences are as intended or expected, or not), repeat. There is no should, there is here, now, and the next step. Morality comes into play when I make decisions, I can make skillful decisions that help reduce suffering, or unskillful decisions that won't. As I make unskillful decisions, I try to pay attention to what happened, so I could be more skillful in the future.
So I look around my room, see the current clutter for what it is, and brainstorm what habits might be useful to cultivate:
- I see a number of items that I never use, never expect to use, but have trouble throwing out because they're "good stuff". For this, I seek to cultivate the habit of more frequent trips to the back door of my local Goodwill (that's the safe door that helps me get rid of stuff, the front door is the dangerous one that helps me find stuff I try to bring home).
- I see the number of catalogs laying around increasing again. For this, I seek to designate a space for catalogs, and cultivating the habit of using it, so I can more easily find the ones I find helpful (yes, I find some paper catalogs helpful), and more easily prune the catalogs that are too old or too irrelevant.
- I see the rest of my mail increasing again. Mail is a big hairy issue for me that's going to take a lot of work. For now, I'm going to work on more regularly gathering it and sorting it, especially identifying the irrelevant crap that should just go away, and discarding it. This will not fix my mail issues, but that's OK, it will bring me a step closer to better handling my mail so that I have easier access to more of the information I am expected to have, and I don't have the clutter I don't need.
Just some examples, offered less as tips for others and more as an exercise in viewing the issues we find before us. Perhaps you don't have a literal clutter issue, but many of the same concepts apply, whether we're talking about something deeply personal as our weight, or broadly national as the US Code (the standard summary of Federal Law, thousands of pages long). Even having a spotless and organized home can be a clutter issue, as some find themselves cluttering their time with endless cleaning tasks, indulging their attachment to their image of a clean home.
So how about you, what's cluttering your life? What steps might you take to let some of the clutter go? Any other questions, comments, concerns?